Book review: Ice-Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa

(cover image courtesy Murdoch Books)

When you are taking in the enormity of a major moment in history, it is easy to forget that behind the epic events lie a multiplicity of individual stories.

We may see a monolithic whole but it only exists because a host of people all major contributing personal systems that together came together in the epic events that get recorded in the history books.

American-Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa, known as much for her movingly personal writing as her ongoing collaboration with Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, understands this historical micro/macro better than most, with her 1991 novel Ice Candy Man (the basis for Mehta’s 1998 film Earth) providing gripping testament to the way the small and the intimate can be become the powerfully and yes, destructively transformative.

Set during the turbulently violent period of India’s partition into India and Pakistan, Ice Candy Man tracks the experience of one family in Lahore, and their various friends and servants, during a time in which, in Sidhwa’s words “seven million Muslims and five million Hindus and Sikhs are uprooted in the largest and most terrible exchange of population known to history.”

Sidhwa doesn’t shy from the awful horror of this period in which casual ticks of the colonial pen, which in the rarefied confines of the planning sessions led by Lord Curzon, led to almost unimaginable acts of brutality and carnality where one-time neighbours became the most unyielding and vengeful of foes.

“‘The goddamned English!’ I think, infected by Colonel Bharucha’s startling ferocity at this ‘dastardly’ (one of Father’s favourite words, just as ‘plucky’ is Mother’s) instance of British treachery. ‘They gave us polio!’ And notwithstanding the compatible and sanguine nature of my relationship with my disease, I feel it is my first personal involvement with Indian politics: the Quit-India sentiment that has fired the imagination of a subject people and will soon sweep away the Raj!” (P. 19)

Against the backdrop of such a terrible wholesale movement of people, which upended countless centuries of ownership and connection to the land, it is all too easy to find yourself swamped by the sheer enormity and horror of the events at hand.

But Sidhwa, with a fluency of style and a keen eye for the myriad of ways people react to such catastrophic events, brings events almost too massive to process down to a very human level, principally by using a young girl, the Sethis’ cosseted polio-crippled but adventurously inquisitive daughter Lenny, as the lens through which we view thse seismic events.

Beginning in the then-peaceful surrounds of Lahore, which eventually is assigned to Pakistan with a seemingly thoughtless stroke of the pen, we are privy to Lenny’s day-to-day routine, one which involves trips to Queen’s Park with her beloved nanny or Ayah (who is the subject of a great deal of male attention, including that of the titular ice candy man who sells popsicles at the park), trips to the countryside to her Muslim friend Ranna (courtesy of the family’s cook Imam Din) and time spent with her beloved Godmother whose force of will and reputation is such that she remain inviolable to the types of transgressions perpetrated on others.

Many of the events may seem small and inconsequential but they help to build a vividly intimate picture of life in the city for a varied cross-section of its population which comprises a mix of Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Parsi/Parsee inhabitants, all of which seem to mix with alacrity, ease and unstudied lack of consequence.

It seems near-idyllic in many ways, an important element of scene setting that not only gives us an entrancing window into pre-partition Lahore but which helps to make the gradual slide into bloodthirsty chaos all the more confronting.

Bapsi Sidhwa (image courtesy JLF Houston)

The slide into the horrors of 1947 are gradual and for most people, easily argued away.

The thinking, rooted more in hope than actuality, is that everyone has been neighbours and friends for years – the Parsi Sethis happily exist alongside a rainbow grouping of faiths and Lenny thinks nothing about moving across these boundaries in her relationships with the important people in her life – and thus the predicted clashes surely can’t happen.

But when violence begins erupting in the streets of major cities and towns, many of the people in the outlying villages reason that they would surely be immune to the vengeful fury of the mobs since everyone knows each other intimately and depends each on the other for all kinds of basics of life.

How can such a fundamental, relationship-driven system be rent asunder? It’s unthinkable surely?

Alas, it isn’t and in no time, Lenny’s world, which she explores with innocent and a sense of entitlement that is not borne of arrogance but rather a sense that everything she has known will endure because it already has to date in her short life, is rent asunder, save for her family’s place in the eye of the storm.

As a minority whose existence imperil neither the Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus perceived interests – the reality, of course, is that no one is threatened but the reckless, irrational mood of the horde seldom listens to or heeds calmly logical reason – the Sethis become an oasis in the tumult, a place where most find solace and protection, save for Hindu Ayah who is abducted by a Muslim mob at the height of the blood-filled furor.

“Playing British gods under the ceiling fans of the Faletti’s hotel – behind Queen Victoria’s gardened skirt – the Raddcliffe Commission deals out Indian cities like a pack of cards. Lahore is dealt to Pakistan, Amritsar to India. Sialkot to Pakistan. Pathankot to India.

I am Pakistani. In a snap. Just like that.

A new nation is born. India has been divided after all. Did they dig the long, long canal Ayah mentioned? Although it is my birthday no one has time for me. My questions remain unanswered even by Ayah.” (P. 149)

This relative safety gives them a vantage denied to many others, one which affords them a terrifying view of the back-and-forth tit-for-tat actions of the mobs but also a perspective from which they can take in the changes, the massive, wholesale changes. that occur around them with a furious rapidity.

The only other person who is similarly untouchable is Godmother, a loving but fearsome presence who is able to take the kinds of actions denied to most others and who acts as a guardian angel of sorts, especially in the final act where events build on a national scale to boiling point and beyond but remain small-scale and intimate in Lahore.

Ice Candy Man is unstinting in its withering summation of the colonial sins of the British but assigns no real blame for the action of the various faiths, damning them all with an insightful sense that humanity can be both laudatory and flawed to violently-nightmarish degrees.

As people in contact with the entire spectrum of faiths caught in the unthinking brutality, or perhaps wrongly-thinking brutality of partition, the Sethis, and particularly Lenny who is untainted by adult ideas, beliefs or perspectives and thus sees things with a clarity often lost to others, provide us with a ringside seat to the events of the time but more importantly take us deep into the humanity at the root of it all.

They help us to see an overwhelming event like the partition of India from a very human scale, and provide an understanding of how a series of momentous events affected people at a very individual level, taking what might seem like an imposingly important moment in history and giving it a dimension so intimate and authentically human that you cannot helped but be even more moved by events that are already chilling to the soul.

Ice Candy Man is a beautiful book, which uses gorgeously-measured language, finely-hewn charaterisation and loving depictions of every day life before and after partition to give us an invaluable insight into not only a major moment in human history but also the way in which people handle these moments, both good and bad, and how this shapes the society left behind once the tides of history have receded.

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